WVU Seeks Reversal To Season
It has been one of those old Laurel and Hardy comedies of a season for Bob Huggins and his West Virginia Mountaineers, a year where at times you expected him to turn to someone — anyone who even slightly resembles Stan Laurel — and say:
“Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”
The season was slapstick at its greatest, a year of missed dunks and wild passes, of balls dribbled off their own feet and the feet of their opponents.
As it was in some those Laurel and Hardy movies, you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at times, it was so bad.
And so it is, as they take what probably will be their last gasp of air in the Big 12 Tournament, beginning tonight with a 9 p.m. game against Oklahoma in Kansas City, it is fair to take a look at the season as a whole and try to understand just how Huggins wound up in “another fine mess.”
To begin with, he comes into the game needing to lose one more game to have a 20-loss season — the only one in his 37 years as head coach. His seed is 10th in the 10-team tournament and he goes up against an Oklahoma team that owns the seventh seed with a reverse 19-12 record from the 12-19 Huggins has.
They are eager to get at it.
“Our attitude is kill or be killed,” freshman Derek Culver said.
“This is a new season for us, a new opportunity to prove ourselves,” added freshman Jordan McCabe.
Some have pointed fingers at Huggins himself, oddly suggesting the game had passed him by even though he had won a minimum of 25 games in each of the prior four years and had been the National Coach of the Year just four years ago.
What’s more, he had amassed the kind of talent that made the team a preseason pick to finish third in the Big 12, with no one thinking they’d be surprised if he won it all.
Yet it started crumbling even before it began with injuries. Preseason drills were more like a rehab center with Sagaba Konate nursing his surgically repaired knee back to health, with Beetle Bolden fighting through wrist and ankle problems, Lamont West thrown off by a wrist injury, Brandon Knapper coming back from a year off for knee surgery and getting injured in the process.
And as the season started, he found he had to suspend his prized freshman, Culver, for off-court behavior … a message more than a discipline that straightened him out but cost him the first 10 games of the year.
Culver not only didn’t play. He didn’t practice and, before returning to the team, he had to sign a “contract” that laid out the behavior expected of him both on the court and in the classroom.
It is almost unimaginable that as Huggins sends his starting lineup out of the floor to face Oklahoma tonight, the only one of them that started the first game is West, and he spent most of this year coming of the bench.
The starting lineup in the opener was Konate, Beetle Bolden, West, Chase Harler and the team’s only senior, Esa Ahmad.
Konate played only eight games, Bolden only 18 games, Bolden, Ahmad and Wesley Harris are no longer members of the team.
“We lost our whole front line,” Huggins noted. “One of them was the best shot blocker in America, another one of the top defenders in the league and a thousand point scorer. I don’t care who you are, that’s going to affect you.”
He never knew who would be practicing, who could play come game time … and that made it an impossible situation to bring along freshman and newcomers like Jordan McCabe, Jermaine Haley, Emmitt Matthews and Derek Culver.
At a time the losses were mounting and Huggins should have been devoting his time and efforts to game planning and fine tuning, he was still working on fundamentals as basic as not bringing the ball down in the pivot, passing and not dribbling, staying in front of your man as defender.
“I can show them what to do. I can’t do it for them,” he said in mid-season. ‘I can tweak their shots or in some cases reconstruction them. But they have to put the time in to fix it.”
It took time and patience … and he was running out of both.
“We haven’t defended all year. We’re horrible. This is the worst defensive team I think I’ve ever had,” he said. “We don’t put pressure on the ball. We don’t get to the ball. We don’t handle screens very well. We don’t do much right, to be honest with you.”
Huggins had teams start badly previously, but he brought them along and you could guarantee they would be playing well at the end.
It just wasn’t happening with this team because two many factors were pulling against it. In fact, until he cleaned out the closet, letting Ahmad and Harris go, it looked like it had all been for nothing.
But then things started happening. Players, given a chance, played well. McCabe began making outside shots and passing deftly, Culver reached the stage of being a star, Haley went from a hesitant shooter to someone who could score 30 points on a hot night.
While the wins didn’t come right away, there was visible improvement, so much so that as they enter this tournament Huggins notes “We’re a different team” and is backed up in that assessment by Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, who knows this is the team he split two games with this year.
Even an 92-85 loss to Oklahoma State to end the regular season, Huggins saw what he wanted to see.
“We competed,” he said. “If it were earlier in the year when they made their run, it would have been over. But we fought on. We scored enough poits to win. We just didn’t stop them.”
Now they have nothing to lose. There’s a road to the NCAA Tournament but it means they have to win four games to take the Big 12 Tournament.
You might say “It’s another fine mess you got me in.”